How to Help Your Kids With Stress

Adults aren’t the only ones feeling incredible stress these days. Thanks to decreased social contacts, changed routines (that seem to keep changing), and parental anxiety, kids are also stressed out. In fact, between 19 and 22 percent of children ages six to 12 report having anxiety, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last August. Normally less than 7 percent of kids this age have anxiety.

Don’t let this cause you to worry even more. No matter their age, you can help your child identify and cope with stress. But first things first: Take care of yourself. “If a child sees their parent is stressed out, it will rub off on the child,” says Wilfred van Gorp, PhD, ABPP, a national expert in neuropsychology and past president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology. It’s good practice to remember this when trying to help them, so that you don’t unintentionally allow your own stress to impact them instead. 

Whether you see a professional, join a support group, or use self-care practices is your call. Once you’re in a good place, try following these tips to help your child.

For Young Children

Signs they’re stressed: Be mindful of anything different from your child’s normal behavior. For example, elementary-age kids who feel overwhelmed often have behavioral issues and may get into trouble at school or at home, says psychologist Nekeshia Hammond, PsyD. Additionally, their school performance may slip or they may struggle socially, she adds.

How to help: A few different things may work depending on your child’s personality and their age.

Model how to talk about it. Since they may not know how to explain what stress feels like, talk to them about your stress in age-appropriate terms. Van Gorp suggests something like, “You know, being at home all the time and worrying that we might get this virus or that grandma might get sick, that could make anybody feel bad. It makes me feel bad—does it make you feel bad?” “This normalizes the feeling and makes it OK and easier for your child to talk about it,” he explains. 

Play. Encourage your child to draw, use putty, play with Legos or dolls, or do whatever they enjoy playing. “These types of things are helpful for them to express themselves,” Hammond explains. You may notice emotions on stick figures or words their dolls are saying and can then ask, “This person looks sad. Are they sad? Why are they sad?'”

Teach them how to relax. Deep breathing is simple and can help at any age, Hammond says. You probably have to show and tell younger kids how to do this. So go step by step and give them instructions, demonstrating as you inhale for a count of three to five and then exhale for a count of three to five. Then have them practice with you. At the end, encourage them to do this when they feel stressed, or suggest that they breathe deeply with you when you notice them showing signs of distress.

For Preteens

Signs they’re stressed: Slipping grades and not wanting to go to school can also indicate stress in middle school kids. This age may also get into fights, eat a lot more or a lot less, disengage from their friends, experience changes in sleep patterns, and be highly irritable or even lash out. Also be aware of any talk or signs that they want to hurt themselves or others. If this happens, you may want to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

How to help: Preteens can be easier because they can have a conversation, yet they can also be harder because if you become a helicopter parent, that may only add to their stress. So be mindful of your actions and your child’s reactions and consider the following.

Let them lean on peers. Van Gorp recommends encouraging them to be social, because talking to their friends can help.

Set aside time. “Designate time during the day that you can spend with your child for the purpose of providing intentional and positive support,” suggests licensed psychologist Laura Beth Cooper, PhD. During that time, your preteen has to know they can talk about anything. “Give them praise for any successes or accomplishments that day, offer empathy for any struggles, and tell them that you are always here for them. Encourage them to solve their own problems, but let them know to tell you as soon as they need you to step in and help,” she says.

For Teens

Signs they’re stressed: High schoolers sometimes tend to express stress in the same ways as middle schoolers. However, your child’s individual stress signs may change as they grow, so be aware of any shifts.
How to help: Some teens do better with a hands-off approach. Others may need a gentle nudge. Here are some options.

Back off. “Stop trying to control them because they will probably gravitate to the right answer on their own. The more you try to force them, the more they will rebel and naturally want to do the opposite,” van Gorp says. Trust that your child will find their way. (But of course step in if you have concerns about destructive behaviors or self-harm.)

Suggest self-help. Encourage your teen to journal, go for jogs, or do whatever self-care activities they enjoy on a regular basis. “The most important thing is working on having your teen make a commitment to their wellness,” Hammond says. “Some teens need to hear, ‘It’s okay to take a break.’”

When to Seek Professional Help

If none of this works, seek the help of a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who specializes in working with your child’s age group.

Credentials aside, be sure that both you and, most importantly, your child relate well to and get along with the therapist. You may need to try a few professionals before you find the right one. Don’t give up.

How you bring this up with your child depends on their age. For younger kids, van Gorp suggests saying something like, “We are going to see Dr. Julie about how we’re going to do better handling [insert the situation]. We’re going to talk to her and she’s going to help you and me deal with that.” 

For preteens and teens, mention how you (the parent) will also meet with the professional to learn how to cope with the situation, and that you may also have joint sessions together (with any other family members too, if appropriate). “Most kids, especially teens, are better at accepting therapy if they feel like everyone is in it together,” Hammond explains. “Express that the family as a whole is working on this, you are there to support them, and the child is not the problem.”

Other times with teens, van Gorp says to give them a choice. Say something like, “This has been very difficult and stressful for you. It might help to talk to someone about that. Would you be open to that? I think it would be helpful, but I won’t make you go.”

If your child is resistant, don’t force it. Instead, van Gorp suggests a paradoxical approach, something like, “You know, I thought about it, and you’re probably right. It probably won’t help, and maybe it would even make things worse. Let’s just not even think about it anymore.” This often will make them want to try therapy, he explains. And after three to four sessions with the right therapist for them, the majority of kids realize it’s not as bad as they thought, Hammond adds.

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